When God stopped driving, Idi took over. Paul Pickering enjoys a portrait of power run mad
The Last King of Scotland

by Giles Foden

Faber & Faber, pounds 9.99

The central figure, and in many ways the hero, of this powerful first novel is Idi Amin, a man whose idea of combining fun and a Scottish housewife's sense of financial probity was to make prisoners bash in the brains of the men they were sitting behind, before being de-brained by the unfortunates behind them - the ultimate executive toy. While there have been other bloodier African dictators, few are ex-British army sergeants nostalgic for the glens. When this country put Idi in power in Uganda, we created a unique monster. King of Scotland was one of the titles he awarded himself, along with the VC.

Into this nightmare comes Nicholas Garrigan, a young Scottish doctor, who idealistically eschews private practice to take a post with the Ugandan Ministry of Health. He is sent out into the bush and the picture of post- colonial poverty is unflinching: "an infected dog bite on a girl's nose. The pus pulsing beneath like an underground spring. Me holding my breath as I lanced it..."

But one day Idi passes through and sprains his arm. Nicholas treats him and is then summoned to what is at first a more comfortable life, even though Amin at a formal dinner admits: "I have also eaten human meat." Nicholas becomes close to Idi, whom he cures of a bad dose of wind with the help of a baseball bat. After the painful and smelly release of gas, Idi is about to brain the doctor with the bat and then bursts into laughter, "the laugh of one who saw comedy in the dead light and stardust of the galaxies". But still Nicholas does not twig what mortal and moral danger he is in.

The change from being intrigued by a comic Amin to being terrified could have been smoother in the novel. The paralysing effect of dictatorial fear on daily life is not explored because for a long time it passes the good doctor by. Not until Nicholas is asked to do an abortion by a friend who has got one of Idi's wives pregnant does he realise in what type of hell he is living. He refuses to perform the abortion. His friend commits suicide, and the wife is chopped into pieces. This pivotal incident should have loomed larger, bringing out other characters than Nicholas and Amin.

In the end the doctor finds he is too close to Amin, as the country descends into chaos and he is forced to watch torture and execution. Nicholas is now the monster. "I had become enough like Amin to contemplate killing him for the pleasure of it." He returns to Scotland, where he imagines "I am Idi at Murrayfield". The moral is: physician, heal thyself.

Foden has given us a dark, often comic picture of a country and a part of man where "God is not driving", in a superb first novel which demonstrates that he is a writer of tremendous invention and promise.